Arizona Wildcats football notebook: Johnny Nansen tries to 'simplify' defense, changing some starting points

Arizona Wildcats football notebook: Johnny Nansen tries to ‘simplify’ defense, changing some starting points

Even if the disappointing defensive performances accumulate, Johnny Nansen sticks with the same message. But maybe with a few less words.

“We have to try to keep it simple,” Arizona’s defensive coordinator said Tuesday. “There are a lot of moving parts during the game. As a coach you have to put them in the (right) position, so I have to do a better job. Make sure they understand where their fit is going to be. And then, overall, what are you going to face in the game.”

Nansen said Oregon’s constant movement and change before the snap, along with the presence of a mobile quarterback, was a big help for the Wildcats (3-3, 1-2 Pac-12) allowing 580 yards overall and 306 on the ground in the 49 -22 home loss.

They won’t see another loaded QB this week like Above Nixwho had 70 yards and three touchdowns, but Nansen said Washington (4-2, 1-2) was doing a lot of the same things before the break that the Ducks did that caused Arizona problems.

“Once they get moving, because you have a lot of receivers moving around, and then when they go through, it’s totally different and where (our) eyes are on,” Nansen said. “So that’s the challenge we have, and I don’t want to sit in just one defense, so now they’re playing into their hands. I’m trying to help the kids.

Nansen said Arizona was ready to stop Oregon’s run, as it did on first practice and the first plays of second possession, limiting the Ducks to 19 yards on their first five carries.

“One time they noticed they went into an unbalanced formation, where it kind of limits what you do,” Nansen said. “And then they went blank, which is a totally different game now. You’re in space now, with the screen game. Those are the things we need to clean up this week.

Washington has the best passing offense in the conference, averaging 357.3 yards per game, but screens aren’t a big part of that. Michael Penix attempted just 44 screen passes on 250 backstrokes and his average target depth (9.8 yards per throw) is the highest of any Pac-12 passer who has started each game.

Defensive changes underway

Freshman linebacker Jacob Manu is listed as first-team linebacker Will on the latest depth chart, putting him in line to make his second career start. Freshman in red shirt Flask cage started the first six games, but his Pro Football Focus rating (33.4) is the lowest among FBS linebackers with at least 75 snaps.

Cage will still play, Nansen said, but he thinks he’s getting closer to the 21 snaps Manu had against Oregon while Cage played 47 as a starter.

Manu is generously listed on the roster as 5ft 11in, but Nansen said he doesn’t care how tall a player is if the skills are there.

“These are guys who have a talent for football, they can tackle. can they read, can they reduce area coverage, can they provide men’s coverage?,” Nansen said. “Where are their eyes? He can do it naturally.

Manu was on Arizona’s defensive scouting team in the preseason and early fall, but that didn’t last long.

“He was training our linemen, who were giving up 100 pounds”, OL’s attacking coordinator/coach Brennan Carroll said. “He’s a stallion.”

All signs point to another change among the starters, as sophomore Nansen said DJ Warnel was moved to the Star position after playing safety in parts of the past two games. The transfer from UCLA was in that role, which is a nickel corner spot occupied so far by Gunner Maldonado.

Maldonado is listed at 6ft, 195lbs while Warnell is 6ft 3in, 200lbs, making him the right height for what Nansen is looking for at the Star, which he describes as “a blanket type, body of security that can be in a box to help with errands.

“In college football these days, it’s all wide open, so you have to have people in the space playing the cover and adapting to the run.

Maldonado has Arizona’s lowest tackle rating (23.9) among leading defenders, while Warnell is at 81.7 in his limited snaps. Warnell also has Arizona’s fifth-best coverage and fourth-best run defense.

As for any further moves in the near future, don’t expect Anthony Solomon Where Malik Roseau be in the mix. Asked about those linebackers, who were both competing for starting spots in the spring, Nansen suggested they aren’t considered based on their knowledge of defense.

“I have to make sure they understand assignments and things like that,” he said. β€œThe best guys are going to play in this program. We can’t just put guys in there. They have to earn their place.”

Solomon, a transfer from Michigan, has only played on special teams this season, while Reed hasn’t been on the court at all after playing six games in 2021, including a Territorial Cup start.

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